Jeff and the Mystery of Fumi Yoshinaga (Part 2)

November 20, 2014


Previously:  Jeff decided to start writing on Fumi Yoshinaga, the brilliant mangaka behind Flower of Love, Antique Bakery, What Did You Eat Yesterday? among many, many others, and her one volume work Not Love But Delicious Foods Make Me So Happy!  But, first, he figured it was worth exploring a line he’d written a week earlier and how it tied into his own feelings about American superhero comics, along with a spectacularly dour view of his brief time entering—or more accurately, not entering—the comic book industry after trying to break in.  The column ended with Fumi Yoshinaga, still on the horizon, undiscussed, and her connection to all of Jeff’s other verbiage unclear.


Around a decade or so ago, I pulled a page from the Jor-El playbook and packed up my love of comics and shot it to Planet Manga, in the hopes that, free from the shackles of corporate-owned comics (while still allowing me to read something on a semi-regular basis), it would grow strong.  I’m overplaying it to stick the Superman analogy because I still continued to read many, many superhero comics, both old and new, but…if nothing else, I was at least commuting to Planet Manga, and had staked a lot of my hopes there.

And for a while it was pretty much successful, at least until I realized somewhat early on that, hmm, wait a minute, I can only read so many stories about a plucky young hero driven to be the best  at [some sport/serial killing/girlfriend having] and finally overcoming tremendous obstacles to become the best [sportsman/serial killer/girlfriend haver] by virtue of his [indomitable spirit/mysterious link to ancestors/good heart and/or penis].  It’s not a bad formula at all, but sort of in the same way manga lovers who’ve transitioned to superhero comics can get a little antsy after a while, running a finger under their collar and nervously asking, “uh, there is more to it than just this, right?”, I found myself getting a bit skittish, not in love enough with the tropes to appreciate the nuances with which they were handled.  Wasn’t there something for everyone in manga?  Where was all the, I dunno, delight?

Enter Shaenon K. Garrity’s Overlooked Manga Festival, a collection of LiveJournal entries that were was absolutely everything I needed to keep me interested in the field, with entries covering all corners of the manga map—shonen, shōjo, bishonen and other terms I always have to look up to make sure I really do mean what I’m writing.

In fact, looking over the list now, I’m a little appalled about how many of my very favorite manga are on that list.  I didn’t just go down that list entry by entry and immediately assumed every find I liked was my own personal discovery, did I?  I hope not—but there are a couple of books I know with positive and absolute assurance I wouldn’t have tried without Shaenon writing about it:  JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure is definitely one.  And Flower of Life by Fumi Yoshinaga is another.

Me attempting to describe Yoshinaga’s work is going to be like watching a monkey drive a stick shift but… Fumi Yoshinaga is a shōjo mangaka, which means her work is for a largely female audience.  If I’m understanding Wikipedia’s super-brief entry on her correctly, I’m guessing that Yoshinaga was at the right age to be a reader during the dawning age of shōnen-ai, also known as the “boys love” manga of the ’70s and ’80s.   Shōnen-ai, if I’m following it right, started off as stories of platonic love between young boys which then, thanks to the fanfic of the dōjinshi markets, got steamed up and became more explicitly gay (though the definition of the word “explicitly” here can be misleading since I’m not necessarily talking about depiction of sexual acts—maybe I should use the term “openly”?)

Had to search on "monkey driving a car," instead.

(Had to search on “monkey driving a car,” instead.)

Frequently set in distant times and in different cultures (like Europe), shōnen-ai is Otherness with a generous side-helping of Other, the kind of stuff I imagine being read by whipsmart outsider girls of the time: character-driven, educational, but also kinda hot—like regency romances, I guess?  But with gay protagonists, so as to allow more sexual concepts into the mix without resulting objectification anxiety?

From a critical perspective, what’s (probably) interesting about Yoshinaga is how her work, having emerged from this framework, moves freely to embrace all its aspects:  Flower of Life is definitely a platonic love story between teenage boys in a manga club (which provides for more than a few fond anecdotes about making dōjinshi); Ōoku: The Inner Chambers is an alternate history in which a man-killing disease turns medieval Japan into a matriarchal society; and Antique Bakery is a character study  of three hot awesome dudes who run a hot awesome bakery.

But from this fan’s perspective, what’s great about Yoshinaga is how effortlessly exquisite her characterization is, how leisurely her storytelling is, and how deftly she can upend my expectations.  It’s always hard for me to properly calibrate my comparisons of creators when their work does not feature explosions and brainpunching, but Yoshinaga’s work reminds me of Bill Forsyth’s Gregory’s Girl and Local Hero, two films long on charm, leisure, and wry affection for their characters.

Jonesing for exactly this kind of fix—and finding myself for whatever reason too daunted to dig into Ōoku, despite really digging the first volume—I eagerly picked up the first two volumes of What Did You Eat Yesterday?, Volume 1 (2007?), Yoshinaga’s multi-volume chronicle of a middle-aged gay couple and the meals they prepare and eat together.  Perfect, I remember thinking.  I love food manga! I love Yoshinaga’s characterizations!  I love how slowly and subtly Yoshinaga insinuates her themes into her narrative. I can’t wait!

Oh, man. I could kill for some good ramen right now...

Oh, man. I could kill for some good ramen right now…

Two volumes later, I found myself a bit cross, not quite willing to admit I’d been bored by what I read but unable to rally any excitement for it, either.  By and large, the stories in the first two volumes take the concept of “slice of life” storytelling to a brand new level of diceyness: handsome and fastidious, Shoji is an indifferent lawyer by day and a spectacular cook by night, who spends most of his time trying to figure out how to prepare the most delicious meals for the least amount of money.  Kenji, his partner, is a happy-go-lucky hairdresser who is absurdly grateful for all the great meals and props up the meals with his stories and charm.

I can’t fault Yoshinaga for the series doing what it says on the tin: it shows you the foods Shoji prepares and how he prepares them, and it shows the couple enjoying the meal together.  And it’s a handy comic:  most of the drama comes from how Shoji prepares his meals based on what’s available, fresh, and cheap, and also how he takes his ingredients and plays them out over several meals.  It’s not hard to imagine other less lazy people than myself getting inspired to think about how to be prudent about what they eat, how to get the most out of the foods they buy.  And, even more impressive, is how this ties into the emotional theme of the books (at least as I could discern it), where two middle-aged people who aren’t perfect for one another are nevertheless right for each other.  What Did You Eat Yesterday is a very middle-aged book, since its ongoing topic is how to do more with less.  Around the fringes of What Did You Eat Yesterday hovers a secret sense of dissatisfaction…but beyond that dissatisfaction is acceptance, and with that acceptance is love (of a very middle-aged conception of it).  Like I said, I couldn’t fault it but for whatever reason I didn’t much enjoy it, either.

Yeah, right.  “For whatever reason.”  I guess the reason is pretty obvious:  I’m 48, and I’m uncomfortable with how much acceptance I should be feeling, how much dissatisfaction I should be copping to in my life.  As mentioned in my previous entry, I genuinely consider myself blessed to be married to the woman I’m married to, I have friends, I have my health (or what the non-physically-fit 48 version of it looks like, probably), I have a job that allow me at least a little financial comfort and the time to enjoy that comfort.

But is it what was expected from the kid who looked at the top-of-the-pagecredit box of Marvel Comics and imagined his name there?  No, it’s probably not.

Like everyone else, I’ve got days where I open my email and there’s correspondence from friends and family, from people I communicate with on a regular basis thanks to the podcast and the website, and people I’m just getting to know.  And there are those days where all I get is junk, mailing lists I no longer follow, ten thousand bloodcurdling calls to action from activist groups, up-to-the-minute reminders to buy stuff based on stuff I’ve bought, and endless, endless sales.  (I should just acknowledge the fact I’m never going to buy anything from Think Geek and unsubscribe.)  Depending on how lonely your childhood was, I think it’s easy to imagine adulthood as this amazing place where you’re paid attention to all the time.  You just command it, it’s yours by right of being an adult.  And while I have to say—one hand on my heart, I’m being absolutely sincere—I’m genuinely grateful that is not the case, I also have to say:  this, right here?  Not what I was expecting.  What Did You Eat Yesterday? is one of those works where I didn’t connect because I couldn’t bear to connect.  I think adulthood in some ways is like landing a jet: sometimes you have to touch the truth and bounce away a few times before you finally get all your wheels on the ground.  There wasn’t anything terrible about What Did You Eat Yesterday?, there wasn’t anything I hadn’t really considered before, but I also had no desire to face it, story after story, chapter after chapter, chopped scallion after chopped scallion.

But I still wanted to read Fumi Yoshinaga in a contemporary setting.  Well-observed characters! Slow and subtle themes!  Food, if possible!

So I did a little bit of desperate late-night shopping and ordered Not Love But Delicious Foods(Make Me So Happy),(2005?),  a single volume of stories by Yoshinaga that are ostensibly reviews of some of Yoshinaga’s favorite places to eat in Tokyo, but are also something like whimsical autobio comics.  The book itself came out in 2010 and existed in that “oh sure there are copies because not a lot of people bought them (this ain’t Naruto, after all), but you’re gonna have to wait a couple of weeks to get it into your grubby little paws instead of two days (this ain’t Naruto, after all)” state I’m growing mercifully less and less aware of in my dotage. (Cue footage of Amazon drones shooting down American eagles with laser beams.)  With optimism and trepidation, I dug in.  (Food pun…intended?)

(Oboy, this image.)

(Oboy, this image.)

As mentioned, it’s a one-off volume, and in some ways it’s a dry-run for What Did You Eat Yesterday?, since it’s part food manga, part slow-burn relationship comedy.  It’s much more immediate and funny, however, because Yoshinaga continually presents herself in an unflattering light: even the image above, where Yoshinaga is all dolled up and I think presenting some sort of come-hither look, has her scarfing down a hilariously unsexy piece of food and wearing a charm necklace that all but flashes “WARNING:  CRAZY WOMAN!”  And when she’s back in her studio complaining about work, or not having a boyfriend, or not having any good food to eat, she’s drawn even less flatteringly (and more winningly):


(Check out that caption!)

For those of us hoping for more of a story,  NLBDFMMSH teases a bit more romance.  The relationship between “Y-Naga” and her school-chum-turned-assistant, “S-Hara,” looks as if it might be bloom into romance (the two had promised to marry if they were still single when they were thirty four; the story where this is revealed ends with them pushing the date back to forty), and at several points the narrative feints like it’s going to be a coming-of-age story of a late-bloomer (S-Hara) finally coming into his own in the manga business, or a romance between S-Hara and the other assistant of Y-Naga he’s been crushing on, or several other narrative strategies that never come to pass.  Unlike What Did You Eat Yesterday, I found the gambit far funnier here: sandwiched in between all the pages showing you the delicious food making Y-Naga happy, these teases are clearly just jokes that help the book live up to its title.

And yet…

I also finished the book feeling a little bit distraught.  As you may notice in the caption above, Y-Naga is hilariously harsh in her descriptions of herself, and her relationships with those closest to her involve at least one person being frustrated by her selfishness or abrasiveness or… And she herself only seems intermittently satisfied with her life, happiest when at a restaurant but even there, on a date, she’s willing to say that she calls herself “an illustrator” rather than admit to being a mangaka, moving beyond the standard Japanese convention of modesty to something closer to genuine shame .  At every point, Yoshinaga, her friends, her dates fail to connect when they should, greeting confessions with embarrassment or indifference.  It’s funny in a Seinfeld kind of way, but it’s also sad.

And that’s my big stopping point? “It’s funny in a Seinfeld kind of way, but also sad?”

Yeah, I guess it is.  It was sad in a way that gave me pause, but also maybe courage:  it made me think about dissatisfaction, and if conveying dissatisfaction will help move someone to the next level (acceptance, love).  And it made me think about community: sometimes you still have community but that community never quite coheres in the way you think it does because we’re people, not refrigerator magnets.  (By the way, if it turns out we are indeed refrigerator magnet?  Please DO NOT tell me.)  Maybe if it’s Not Love, But Delicious Comic Books that make me so happy, it seems to follow I cannot be happy all the time, or even a chunk of the time?

The meal is consumed, the comic book is read (and stored, or lost, or forgotten, or remembered).  I’m 48 and soon I will be dead—I mean it’s a very relative term “soon,” I’m not offing myself and I don’t plan on getting into any gunfights anytime soon, but if by “soon,” I mean “less than 48 years,” then yeah, probably soon—and what is left?

I don’t know the answer—I don’t think I should know the answer— but in the fringes of these books, I found clues that led me to suspect I should finally be asking the question.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

4 comments on “Jeff and the Mystery of Fumi Yoshinaga (Part 2)

  1. supergodmasterforce Nov 24, 2014


    As I’m sure you know a large part of the appeal of food/gourmet manga are the recipes (and restaurant recommendations) I’m curious to know if you’ve tried to make any of the food for yourself at home.

    There”s no Food Network here in Japan and what would equate to the kind of food-shows Western viewers regularly watch amount to famous and semi-famous people eating (and occasionally cooking) on TV. I’d hazard a guess that these types of Manga fill that niche for the 30-something Japanese reader.

    Your reaction to “Not Love But Delicious Foods(Make Me So Happy)” being one of sadness I feel is pretty much right on the money. It seems to me that the single girl vs food/sports/hobby/travel/music/historical figure trope in Manga is very much about making the best of a bad situation. In that the aging, single, Japanese female, limited in career prospects, and slowly realizing that the idea of a romantic relationship leading to marriage is giving way to a pragmatic and possibly loveless partnership (If she’s lucky). The fascinating trappings aside, It’s all about accepting your lot and yet finding some kind of meaning, or at least contentment in whatever you can.

    • Jeff Lester Nov 25, 2014

      Thanks for this, SGMF. It’s nice to know you think I was on point about “Not Love But Delicious Foods (Make Me So Happy).” Hopefully, that feeling ended up well-reflected in the posts themselves, too.

      As for making the food, I’ve kinda half-thought about it, but (a) my cooking skills are slight, and (b) some of the recipes don’t really align with either my dietary choices or my (admittedly limited) palate. But I do realize that is part of the charm I’m overlooking (esp. in “What Did You Eat Yesterday?,” which clearly plays with the instructional form and extends it to shopping).

  2. Stefan Nov 25, 2014

    You’re a good writer Jeff, keep it up!

    • Jeff Lester Nov 25, 2014

      Thanks, Stefan, very much appreciated. I may not end up where I thought, but I’m still commited to walking the path so we’ll see where it goes.